Guillermo del Toro, in discussing the inspiration of his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, claimed to wonder as a child why Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Gill Man and Julie Adams couldn’t have fallen in love. JD Dillard’s Sweetheart, which dropped on VOD this past Tuesday, feels like the Black Lagoon reimagining from someone who didn’t have the luxury of romanticizing the monsters in their life. Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) finds herself alone on an island, her days spent in solitude preparing for survival against a carnivorous creature that comes ashore each night to terrorize her. When potential salvation arrives, Jenn struggles to convince these would-be saviors that the threat is real. It’s a top-notch monster movie, rich with allegory about the isolating effect of abuse, and a woman’s struggle to be heard and believed.
FANGORIA spoke with Dillard about the loaded subtext of his creature feature, the challenges of casting and shooting a nearly dialogue-free lead performance, and “wanting to give my sisters a hero.”
Mild spoilers follow.
FANGORIA: How did this project originate?
JD Dillard: It was a specific shot. The reveal of our creature in the movie is where the idea started. I was at a wedding and after the wedding we all went down to the beach and – with the help of alcohol – I was just looking out toward the water and was like, ‘Man, you know what the scariest thing would be? Seeing something stand up and look at me.’
That's when I ran to my phone and texted my friends Alex (Hyner) and Alex (Theurer), who I wrote the script with, and said, ‘Maybe there's something here, in this reveal of a creature.’ Then we expanded that and gave it protein and a heart and a character, and it grew from there.
FANGORIA: For the movie it is, Sweetheart is not an obvious title.
Dillard: It's really a presentational issue. If I give you a still frame of my movie, I don't want you to be able to innately know its genre. I like that we can misdirect – ‘Oh this is a family drama, and then it opens up into this other thing.’ You could say that's certainly how Hereditary feels. You're like, okay cool, a little ecosystem about this, and then it obviously starts to roll up its sleeves and show you its gnarly tattoos. That's been my approach. I'll find the thing that I want the horror to represent, but then at surface value start the movie as a misdirect of something else. That's at least what I find fun about it.
Just coming into Sundance, most people didn’t know it's a creature movie. In fact, no one knew it was a creature movie. ‘It's a movie called Sweetheart and this girl is on an island and there's weird stuff here. What is that about?’ The festival experience is the rare occasion that your movie can step out into the world with practically no pre-existing understanding of what it is. It truly feels like the Wild West in your ability to create its identity. So dreaming that that would be the way in which this movie would start, not giving it a horror title seemed really interesting.
FANGORIA: This film is dialogue-free for most of the movie. Was that an appeal, or a challenge, or a hurdle?
Dillard: Conceptually it was a challenge going in, but that challenge was almost all in our own head. As you're writing it, granted it's like sixty-something pages because you realize very quickly how much space dialogue takes up, but you realize it's still a script. Act structure, everything still applies. As you're writing you're like, ‘Okay, around this point minute-wise we want these types of things to happen.’ It ended up not being as daunting once we really got into the process.
Then it is such a fun exercise to just rely on the core mechanics of filmmaking: performance, sound design, camera. Stefan (Duscio), the DP, my sound team and I all knew part of the fun of this movie was going to be sort of a spartan genre experience. Even going into the writing process, that was some of what we'd talked about.
Part of the movie is born from all of our collective frustration with sort of the over-exposition present in genre. Our violent overreaction was, ‘We're going to do a movie where there's none of that.’ There's no volleyball, there's no seagull, there's no flashback. We wanted to try to just pare it down and see if we can build intensity with sort of slightly different vocabulary. I did not want there to be music in the film until you met the creature. Then that creates a whole other type of challenge where, sonically, what are you doing? My sound team did a really good job deciding, ‘This is the music’ or ‘This is tone’ or ‘We're going to crescendo the ocean in such a way that the island can help us be a soundtrack until we have that.’ We just knew it really just had to be elemental to make the story work. But in a funny way you're like, okay now we're making a silent film and these are the tools.
FANGORIA: Did you have any particular affinity for silent film before this?
Dillard: Honestly not in an academic sense. Strangely, not that this is even a major reference in the movie, but we were watching a lot of Jacques Tati. I think that type of filmmaking is so classic and yet it is so rarely redone. I'm not going to say that Tati’s Playtime was a reference for Sweetheart, but I think somewhere in the back of my head it’s like, ‘Oh, that's a fun way where there is sound and there is a sonic behavior to the movie but it's not dialogue.’ I mean, people barely speak in that film.
Our main aggregation of influence was Alien, Kon-Tiki. Obviously you have to watch Cast Away. Then it's looking at things that exist properly in the space like The Shallows. Just let's look at these sort of spartan creature experiences and see what there is to learn, see what maybe we don't want. If someone's paved the way a little bit, best to have that reference. Weirdly, I think more than anything we watched behind the scenes on Alien.
Dillard: Just because we knew at the onset that we wanted this to be a practical creature movie. That was both an aesthetic and a budgetary choice. So looking at the god Mr. Scott on his back operating a Facehugger certainly charged us up. Like, okay, cool. He did it, maybe we can do it for less money, but it's all good.
And watching something like that helps set the barometer for how much you can see, which was always the balance and dance in this movie. I remember there was a moment in production where Charlie, which is what we nicknamed the creature, is walking the full beach. In my head I know there's no way we could use like 99% of that shot. But when you are that exposed you're like, ‘Oh my God, is this going to work at all? Is any of this movie gonna work?’ Because you're not ever supposed to see it like that. I mean, you're not supposed to see the wide shot from 30 yards away with the man-in-suit creature walking 50 yards. No one's ever supposed to see that.
FANGORIA: It betrays the illusion. You just start second guessing all of it.
Dillard: ‘Why are we here? Why are we in Fiji? What have we done?’
FANGORIA: ‘JD won't come out of his tent.’
Dillard: Yeah, exactly. But watching something like Alien I think gives you a good sense of how much to see. And it's so hard – on a smaller budget, you don't have the sort of prep required to fully dial in how you can shoot the creature. We certainly got there but, at least from my perspective, it would have been amazing to have two weeks with lights and a camera to shoot it and see what movement translated best for camera and what angles on the creature translated best. We got a little bit of that. I think if I'm going to do another creature movie, what I really want to do is take that time and prep and camera test the hell out of it. It took us a good couple of days to be like, ‘Okay, I think this is how we best do it.’
FANGORIA: So who's in the suit?
Dillard: A very wonderful performer, Andrew Crawford. Andrew performed in the ballet in Australia and was the foremost talent there, and he also inhabited the Xenomorph suit for Alien: Covenant. But we wanted someone whose movement vocabulary wasn't, ‘I've played 1000 creatures.’ Love so many of those people's work, the Doug Joneses of the world, but in just knowing what we had and where we could be different, part of what we were trying to wrap our head around was to go back to an instinctual level, working with someone who just comes from a different world. And what subtly that could maybe do for us.
So I was very excited to work with Andrew. And he suffered in that role. The costume weighs north of 180 pounds all in. It's hot. We're in Fiji. Charlie's head itself was very unwieldy in its weight. So it's not just a creative gig; it's like an endurance gig and a psychological gig. And what we really have to do there is just, like, we’ve got to listen to him and listen to his support team. If it's one more take, it's one more take. You can't abuse that. It's hard and it's taxing and you don't want anybody hurt or passing out.
The other very peculiar fear we dealt with: that suit is made of foam latex and if you were to ever actually fall in the water it basically doubles, if not triples, in its weight because of all the water it absorbs. So he could easily drown in the suit. It was this sort of cosmic irony that our aquatic creature was not allowed to get wet.
FANGORIA: There’s an actor stereotype, in which they get a script and they page through to see how many lines they have. Did [Kiersey] look at this and know that it was a one-woman show out of the gate and see the potential in it?
Dillard: Kiersey seemed to really brighten to the challenge. These movies are so specific, these sort of survival thrillers, in that 94% of the movie is your face. You know? You are on set almost every day and you are the movie. I think with that comes a great deal of pressure. If you're sick, we can't shoot. As that role, you dictate the show. Again, not an easy position to be in.
That said, the reason why Kiersey was immediately at the top of my list, there's such a thin balance to walk on this movie and wanting Jenn to be relatable but… I'll explain it like this: we didn't want to make the movie where a bumbling idiot arrives and can't figure anything out. At the same time we don't want to make a movie where a former ER doctor/Navy SEAL washes ashore and has ‘a particular set of skills.’ We didn't want that either. What Kiersey so naturally does is just approach these circumstances with humanity. When she tries to carve open a fish with a dull rock it's not funny but we hopefully realize this is exactly how we would do it. What I really wanted Jenn to be is the same combination of experience that I have. Which is, I’ve watched Man Vs. Wild and Naked and Afraid. No practical technique, just like – I've seen these shows.
FANGORIA: Those shows are not a how-to.
Dillard: I would know as much as she did. She is not an expert in this thing, but we're also not laughing. It's just going to be like an everywoman arriving here trying to figure the damn thing out.
FANGORIA: Is there pressure on you when you're trying to cast that role? Giving someone this role in this film, where she’s the only person onscreen for the bulk of the movie; it's a pretty big leap of faith, and you’d better make the right choice.
Dillard: I think one thing we looked for is a sense of humor. I knew the job was not going to be easy; it's kind of like, ‘Through thick and thin, even on bad days, is it going to be okay to work with this person?’ And Kiersey is absolutely that person, you know? I just had to be as forthright and honest about what I thought it would be, which is, ‘You're probably on set all but one day, if that. Most of the movie is your face. It's going to be hot, it's going to be in the sun, there's going to be sand in all your stuff.’ Just remind them of that. Not that an intelligent person isn't making those connections on their own, but I just felt a responsibility to be like, ‘This is what we're doing.’
Part of it, too, which she so did: you've got to be on the adventure. We know this is going to be weird. We're flying thousands of miles away to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, shooting on an island, a 30-minute commute from the island that we were living on, to an island that has not many resources. We were going to be entirely sort of beholden to the weather. We were going to be outside for the entire show. So as long as you're down for that, everything is going to be fine.
FANGORIA: What were some of the surprises in the process?
Dillard: Right before I did my director's cut I was in a horrific motorcycle accident. It put me in the ICU for a little under two weeks. I didn't walk for months. The movie went on hiatus because I was unfit to do my duties. That was September. Then I came back to the movie in January and, in doing that, I didn't recognize the film. There were hills I was definitely trying to die on months ago that, now, I couldn't even find those hills. I didn't even know what they were. There were also entirely new things that seemed the most important that I had never previously thought about. It was really a weird feeling to see how much you can learn with some distance and that the decisions that you're making aren't necessarily steadfast and immovable, and it just reminded me of how fluid this process is.
I think it also reminded me how it’s important to hear feedback and listen. Breathe and listen. If I can, on movies in the future, I want to, somewhere in the process, take a break. Hand in your director's cut, go on vacation for two weeks, don't look at a frame of that damn movie, send your editor on vacation. Just: ‘everybody get out of here.’ Maybe they even test it while you're doing that, and then come back and you can holistically reengage with the movie.
FANGORIA: In the film, Jenn is spending all day, every day by herself. She's alone, isolated. She spends all day getting ready for the thing that's going to come back at night and terrorize her. Day after day. In those specifics, it very quickly started to take on the feel of a domestic violence kind of allegory. This woman enduring nightly abuse and spending the daylight hours waiting for it to come home and do it again. Even the way the creature made this kind of cruel chuckling sound as it pursued her.
Dillard: I think that part of the story kind of happened in stages. Part of our north star was always kind of this struggle to be believed. That is an issue that a lot of women have to deal with, and that's exceptionally an issue that women of color have to deal with. You know, without speaking that notion through a loudspeaker, it was so immediately baked in. I want to say this very carefully: there are parts of (this narrative) that I think are not necessarily my story to tell. In wanting to give my sisters a hero, you do have to honor the reality of what these characters are going through. Very immediately, these are the things that bubbled up for Jenn.
We also wanted to honor the hard reality that sort of goes unsaid in a lot of horror movies where someone just doesn't explain what the hell’s going on. We knew we had to give her that opportunity (to tell what’s happening) when these people arrived, and then the irony is that they are not going to believe it. I think it was in that turn where you start to realize, ‘Oh my god, she deals with this in every part of her life.’ We've got some people who show up and they don't believe her. Then this is now illuminating much more about her than maybe we were originally told.
It's definitely a conversation Kiersey and I had in finding that and focusing on that. Honestly it was sort of the big change late in post to have her write the letter (that expresses this theme more overtly). While I think innately that story is there without that letter, I think what I started to feel is after you watch her go through this journey and grow into this stronger version of herself and then be challenged by people who frame her a certain way, it seemed like the audience needed to finally get in her head a little bit before she faced the creature again. That's why the letter, again, really seemed the right spot so we could actually let her say what she's struggling with, which to me kind of ties into the vague positivity at the end of the movie. To me, every version of what could happen after credits roll are good.
FANGORIA: We won’t spoil, but ‘vague positivity’ is a good way of putting it.
Dillard: She emerges with the truth that she had been struggling to be taken seriously for. Which, even in that, is a privilege many people don't have. To me, that is like the win for her at the end of this movie. Regardless of what actually happens to her in the most immediate moment, she is going to be believed.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Sweetheart is now available on most VOD platforms.